Well, it’s been a while since I last checked in, but I’m back. It’s been quite a hectic week and now we’ve returned to Bonn and I have been trying to figure out how to do these blog posts again on a PC after using a Mac for the last month or so and then having Anna take it to work yesterday.
So, where have we been? All over the place like a crazy woman’s lipstick! First we were in Brussels, then Köln, followed by Tübingen and Stuttgart after that, before finally returning home to Bonn on Thursday night. If I were to write about the entire trip in one post it would be an essay of epic proportions, so lets just keep this one about Belgium and I will write a separate post about the German leg of our trip.
Our journey began on the night of Thursday, April 30th with our trip to Brussels, Belgium for the May Day long weekend. I’ve always been interested in Belgium, because five things I love come from there:
- The world’s best beers,
- Amazing mussels
- Jean-Claude Van Damme
Four of those five things can be found in great abundance in Brussels and I’m going to try to piece together our long weekend, however, it is a little difficult due to my bad memory and substantial amounts of list item numero uno, but here goes:
Our train was due to depart from Köln Hauptbahnhof at around 8:00pm Thursday night. This meant that Anna had to come home from work, pack quickly, then we would jump in a taxi to the Bonn Hauptbahnhof, catch the 30 minute train to Köln, grab some dinner if we had time remaining and get our train to Brussels. Could we do it? Pffftt, no problem. We even had time to have a couple of beers in our entirely pig-themed restaurant before we got on the train.
The train ride went extremely smoothly and we arrived in Brussels on time, at around 10:00pm. It was the night before a public holiday so the plan was to dump the suitcases at the hotel and hit the town in grand style. Anna had booked us a pretty nice hotel right near the train station, but there are always pros and cons of staying near a train station; Pros: It’s convenient to get around and you have an obvious landmark. Cons: It’s usually a dodgy area and it’s quite noisy. We found our hotel quite easily and would continue to be able to do so over the coming nights due to the brightly illuminated gay clubs and sex shops surrounding it. We checked in then headed out, but we had no idea what was in store for us, that’s for sure!
We exited our hotel lobby in the direction of where the action was apparently supposed to be. The streets were poorly lit and had endless kebab stalls and Middle-Eastern coffee shops, all packed with men smoking and drinking tea. Not a woman in sight. This made Anna a little uneasy so we continued down the road and eventually found a small bar at the end of the street, ironically run entirely by women, so we entered, grabbed a beer and asked them where all the fun was happening. It turned out we were about five or ten minutes walk from the Grand Place, where the Grand Palace is, and that’s the main area of Brusslels.
Anna pulled our her phone and, after minute or two, smiled and asked, “Hey, do you want to go to a bar where you drink out of human skulls?”. My response? “YES!!!”
The bar was called La Porte Noire, situated in a 16th-century vault, with over 100 different beers and 80 whiskies (we were to discover over the course of our time in Belgium that 100 beers is pretty standard for a bar). This place was a goth’s wet dream! There were real human skeletons inside coffin-shaped coffee tables, lampshades made of rib-cages, plus cobwebs and horror paraphernalia everywhere. One thing we discovered that night was that Belgians are some of the friendliest people we have ever encountered. We met more people in a couple of hours than we have met over the last month in Germany, France and the Netherlands, combined. The only downside? The skulls weren’t real, but it was still a great night.
Besides tasting incredible, one of the best things about Belgian beers is that you don’t tend to get a hangover from them after a big night, so on Friday morning we were ready to explore. We knew where to go now, so we headed in that direction, but the only problem was that it was a public holiday so a lot of the shops weren’t open, just bars and restaurants. Unlucky. Along the street with the kebab shops a market was being set up with an enormous stage at the end for a May Day concert. “Might have to have a look later”, we thought.
We strolled into town and were awestruck at how beautiful the city was. Brussels is over 1000 years old, so there is some amazingly beautiful architecture and stunning structures. There is also a lot of incredible street performers and street art. Anna was more intrigued by the chocolate shops. Besides beer, there are a huge number of extremely high-quality chocolate shops all over the city. She eventually stumbled into Aux Merveilleux de Fred for a . I’m not entirely sure what a le merveilleux was, but I have the brochure from the shop in front of me. I just typed the details into Google Translate. The result, “Meringue, whipped cream in chocolate coated black chocolate chips”. Anyway, here is what they look like and trust me, that wasn’t the last time we had these. Not by a long shot.
It was still a bit early for lunch so we stopped by a bar for a drink, because that is completely acceptable and generally encouraged there. It was at this time that Anna and myself had an exchange that would exemplify our entire holiday in Belgium:
Tim: “Listening to Boney-M and drinking great beer. That’s a perfect Saturday morning.”
Anna: “It’s Friday.”
Okay, time for our first meal here. Belgium is famous for mussels, I love seafood, so it just seemed to be the logical choice. Anna and I have a criteria for restaurants when trying a specialty in a new city. We won’t go to any restaurant that has any of the following:
- A person out the front telling you to come in
- Pictures of the food
- Pictures of flags from different countries
- Menus in different languages
These places are just targeting tourists, trying to get your money and not bothering about quality. You want to go where the locals eat so we found a place that met the criteria, sat down and ordered lunch. What did we get? Have a look for yourself:
We ordered snails, mussels with celery and parsley in white wine and mussels with mushrooms in cream and white wine. The food in Belgium is great, but this was, by far, the best non-chocolate based thing we ate. We had mussels a few more times over the weekend, but they just couldn’t compare to these ones.
After lunch, we continued to stroll around the city, we needed to walk off all of the mussels, chocolate and beer. One of the most famous structures in Belgium is Manneken Pis or “Little Pee Man”, a statue of a little boy taking a wizz into a pond that has been in place for almost 400 years. One thing we weren’t aware of is that the statue is dressed in different costumes several times a week. Owing to the statue’s location, we saw it on several occasions. The first time we saw it, he was dressed as a sailor (right), we saw it again later that night without a costume and again on the Sunday, but I can’t recall what it was wearing.
I don’t particularly have a sweet-tooth, but it’s safe to say that Anna does, so what is something else that Belgium is famous for? Waffles and Anna doesn’t mess around in situations like these, if she is going to try something, she wants to try the best. There are plenty of stalls all over Brussels that sell waffles with chocolate or strawberries and cream for €1, but if you want the best, then rumour has it you need to head to Maison Dandoy Tea Room. There was a rather
long wait to get a seat, but when we did finally sit and eat, the food was really nice. Anna was definitely impressed, too, but she didn’t mind the cheap ones on the street either. If it has sugar, she’ll eat it. Now we needed to walk the waffles off.
Our intentions were good, we really were going to try and walk off the waffles, they came with a heap of cream and that was going to head straight to our collective thighs, but the siren song of the pub was too glorious to ignore. As previously mentioned in other posts on this blog, I have a challenge while I’m here in Europe; To try 200 different beers during our eleven week stay. Let me just say that I’ve made that challenge my bitch (current stats to come), but it was even easier to take a sizable chunk out of it in Belgium, because even Anna liked the beers and was happy to go to the pub. How anyone could come here and not want a drink is completely beyond me, even the alcohol-free beers are alright (I ordered one by accident).
Anna loves cherries, thus she likes krieks, but even she was getting into trying the other beers. A lot of Chinese people tend to have allergies to some or all alcohol and in Anna’s case she breaks out in an itchy, red rash if she drinks chardonnay or beer, but Belgian beers don’t seem to cause the rash. In fact, she was the one that kept finding all the cool bars for us to try out. On this occasion it was Au Brasseur, a pub with a great selection. We got a dégustation platter of six beers, which came with 300ml glasses of La Trappe, Waterloo, Brugge Triple, Triple Karmeliet, Kwak and Delerium Tremens.
Now it’s time for that walk.
We finally did it! We actually went for that walk that we kept lying to ourselves about! Unfortunately, because it was a public holiday the shops were closed, but we found an area of art stores and pop-up galleries, as well as an Ethiopian coffee shop that had probably the best coffee in my life and a place we would go back to several times over the course of our trip. The area had some interesting stores, including one that had a stuffed lion, a samurai’s armour and a robot in the front window. I seriously never knew that taxidermy was such a big thing in Europe until I spent an extended period of time here. You stumble across it everywhere.
Later, we went and checked out the market stalls that were near our place, but they were all politically based, rather than food and drink, so we stopped off for some aperitifs (more beer) at Café Leffe, had dinner and then went on a pub crawl of sorts. The first bar we went to was under an old, disused railway station. A few more beers later and we headed to a bar near the Manneken Pis that had money from around the world stuck to the walls. I had a $2 note from Singapore and a ₹5 note from our time in India so we offered them to the barman, but before he would stick them to wall he made us sign them. I always thought that was illegal. Oh well. Finally, we stepped outside to head to a large Belgian beer hall, The Little Delirium Café. The Manneken Pis was butt-naked this time as we walked past.
The beer hall had over 40 beers on tap and almost as many ways of drinking them; You could order glasses, steins, boots and horns among many others. Another great night with a blurry conclusion.
Saturday was a day where we planned to retrace our footsteps and check out all of the stuff we wanted to see the previous day that wasn’t open. What that means is Anna going shopping. Like Amsterdam, there are many vintage stores in Brussels, so Anna could go shopping and there might even be a chance I could find something that I might like. So, the bulk of Saturday was spent strolling around, shopping, snacking and drinking. This included our favourite coffee shop. Earlier, I mentioned us finding possibly the best coffee I have ever had at an Ethiopian coffee shop. That shop was Aksum Coffee House. Any time we needed coffee we just instantly went there and the guys working there were cool, too. Sure, the beer, mussels, and waffles are great in Brussels, but if you want great coffee, just go here.
One thing I never knew about Belgium was their love of french fries. I had a friend who mentioned that if I’m out drinking I should snack on fries. Okay, not a bad idea, but it turns out that Belgians are fanatical about french fries. According to Wikipedia’s page on Belgian cuisine: Fries and fry culture (yes, there is a whole section devoted to Belgian french fries):
Fries, deep-fried chipped potatoes, are very popular in Belgium, where they are thought to have originated. The earliest evidence of the dish comes from a book entitled Curiosités de la table dans les Pays-Bas-Belgiques written in 1781, which described how inhabitants of Namur, Dinant and Andenne around the Meuse River had eaten fried potatoes since around 1680. Though they are usually known as “French fries” in the United States, it is argued that American soldiers during the First World War erroneously believed that they were being served the dish in France.
In Belgium, fries are sold at fast food stands or in dedicated fast-food restaurants called friteries, frietkot, or frituur (loosely: fry shack). They are often served with a variety of sauces and eaten either on their own or in the company of other snacks. Traditionally, they are served in a “cornet de frites”, a cone-shaped white piece of cardboard then wrapped in a piece of paper with the sauce on the top. Other street foods like frikandel, gehaktbal or croquette are sold alongside. In some cases, the fries are served in the form of a baguette sandwich along with their sauce and meat; this is known as a “mitraillette”. In areas with immigration, the same combination is also available in a wrap called a dürüm instead of on a baguette.
The vast majority of Belgian households have a deep fryer, allowing them to make their own fries and other deep-fried foods at home. Supermarkets sell a range of liquid and solid animal- and plant-based fats for use in home deep fryers; beef fat is particularly prized.
It is amazing that they’ve made fries a cuisine there, the people making them care about the simple things such as the variety of potato, the type of oil, even the temperature at which they are cooked and you can taste the difference. Generally, I couldn’t care less about french fries, if they come with my meal I rarely finish them, but these ones I could eat all day.
While walking around, eating our fries, we encountered yet another street performer, this time a puppeteer with marionettes of musicians. He had John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix among others and was doing quite accurate portrayals of them to their classic songs. Here are some shots of John Lennon:
There are a ton of street performers in Brussels, they seem to be on every corner, but another thing that I loved was the mainly Hergé-inspired street art. I’m from Melbourne, a vibrant city where art is a priority, but for the last seven years I have lived in Singapore, a place where art and creativity are not so much a focal point. Also, Singapore is a very new city with many large glass buildings, it’s very clean there and street art isn’t an option. In the older areas, there is still nothing like this because even tagging a building would get you a hefty prison sentence, a fine or a few strokes of the cane (yes, Singapore still has corporal punishment). But walk around Brussels for an afternoon and you will encounter your fair share of three-storey high paintings of Tintin and other similar pieces. Of course, not all of the street art is in this style, but they are the ones that I like, I used to love Tintin as a kid. In fact, Anna thinks I even look a bit like him! Over the course of the weekend we saw quite a lot all over the city, here are a few of the better pieces we encountered:
Afternoon was turning into evening so it might have been a good idea to get dinner. Nah, screw it, let’s have a few beers first. This time we descended on Moeder Lambic, yet another great bar and, on this particular occasion, in the midst of their ‘Italian Beer Weekend’. This meant we got to sit outside and have access to all of their great local beers, as well as a large selection of Italian beers that they had for that weekend, too. When we were in Italy a few years ago I discovered that there were some amazing beers there, but, as long as we’re in Belgium I’m sticking with the local stuff. We grabbed a couple of beers and chatted while we watched a hagged-looking man sitting outside the neighbouring laundromat trying to scam free beers off patrons while he snorted lines of cocaine off his extremely old Nokia mobile phone.
After dinner we embarked upon the Délirium Café, which is special for a particular reason. Délirium Tremens is a great beer, but that’s not all they sell. Again, according to Wikipedia:
Délirium Café is a bar in Brussels, Belgium, known for its long beer list, standing at 2,004 different brands in January 2004 as recorded in the The Guinness Book of Records. On offer are beers from over 60 countries, including many Belgian beers.
The bar is located in the small alley called Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang, only a couple of hundred metres from the Grand Place. The Jeanneke Pis statue is across the street from the entrance.
The bar’s name comes from the beer Delirium Tremens, whose pink elephant symbol also decorates the café’s entrance.
We met a cool couple there, a Dutch man and a Korean woman who was raised in Holland, so we spent the entire night drinking and chatting with them. I even got to have a Chimay Grande Réserve to add to my list. It was a great night, except for the shirtless bogans who had to do the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” thing at the top of their voices. I just drank the shame and embarrassment away.
Okay, Earlier I mentioned that Belgian beers don’t tend to give you a hangover. Well, they do if you have three big nights in a row and get woken by an enormous Middle-Eastern food market outside your hotel early in the morning. We decided to check it out, but this thing was huge. Instead, we decided to head up to Aksum for a coffee and discovered another market on the way, this time it was second-hand paraphernalia and you could buy anything here. It sounds like a metaphor, but we actually saw a man buying a kitchen sink on impulse! It was drizzling and cold all day, thus we couldn’t really enjoy the market, so we went and picked up all the stuff we wanted to buy before we left. This included heading down to the Taschen store, buying a Mark Ryden book that I wanted that must have weighed close to 10 kg. (22 lb.) and carrying it around all day with a throbbing headache.
Eventually, we started to feel a little better and it was time to check out of our hotel and embark on the next stage of this trip. We had had plenty of beer, mussels and chocolate, saw Tintin everywhere, but our only encounter with Jean-Claude Van Damme was tiny picture of him holding a puppy in the lobby of our hotel. Now, it was time to return to Germany and get back to work.
There are a couple of final things I’d like to mention about our time in Belgium. The first is that I have brought up how beautiful Brussels is, so here are some highlights:
Secondly, I have loved beer ever since I had my first one about 20 years ago, but what made my heart swell with pride was seeing Anna come to Belgium and embrace beer, too. It’s something she usually won’t drink, but she really got into it in Brussels. So, as a tribute to my wife thinking outside the box and fully endorsing the Belgian beer culture, this one goes out to her, one of my favourite drinking songs, Chuck Berry’s “Beer Drinking Woman” (*however, I do want to continue to see her):
Will Tim and Anna make it back to Germany for Anna to be able to work a few days in Tübingen? If they do, will there still be any restaurants open when they arrive? And will Tim ever be able to completely get rid of this bloody hangover? For the answers to these questions and more, tune into the next edition of… The Adventures of Timtim